Trip report: Languedoc, Les Gorges du Tarn, Arles
This is a trip report on our two-week trip to eastern Languedoc, Les Gorges du Tarn, and Arles in September, 2009. Caution: the bulk of this report goes day-by-day, and gets a little wordy.
I'll start off with general information, and then a report on our first stop in Languedoc. Later I'll add reports on our next two stops, Les Gorges du Tarn and Arles.
We are Margie and Larry, a couple in our mid sixties, from the Boston (Massachusetts, USA) area. This initial portion of the report was written by Larry; Margie may add some comments later. We both post under the screen name "justretired", a name selected by Margie when I retired about six years ago. I pointed out that at some point the name would become obsolete, but up to now we've stuck with it. While hardly a native speaker, I speak French pretty well, and Margie speaks it at an intermediate level.
We got a lot of advice in advance on the Fodor's Forum, and on SlowTrav.com. We're grateful for the help we got from cigalechanta and St. Cirq, and the information we received from Stu Dudley. Margie put together a restaurant list from these and other sources, which she sorted by town for rapid access. If you'd like to see it or download a copy, go to http://LJKrakauer.com/docs/travel/ . Select "LanguedocRest02.doc".
Periodically, we'd eat in or pass by a restaurant in which, Margie noted, Stu Dudley had eaten a birthday dinner. After a while, I began to realize that: 1: Stu Dudley gets around a lot, and 2: Stu Dudley has had quite a few birthdays.
Other trip details
We had a rental car for the duration of the trip, rented on the web and prepaid through Kemwel ($503 for 13 days), and the car was supplied by Europcar. An additional bill was charged to our credit card by Europcar after the rental: €29.90 "Prem/Railway Surcharge", and €1.49 per day (for 13 days) "Licenses and Fees", for a total of €49.27. Then a value added tax of 19.6% was charged on top of that amount, adding €9.66, for a total of €58.93, or about $86. One of these added charges had been noted on the Kemwel voucher, which said, "This rental does not include a location surcharge of approximately €32.60 for rentals commencing at an airport or rail station location." I'm not sure what the daily "Licenses and Fees" charge is for.
As usual, we chose a car one size above "compact". Although a small car is more maneuverable in Europe, I feel that I'm probably more apt to get into a collision when driving an unfamiliar car in an unfamiliar country, and in that case, I'd rather be a bit better protected. We declined the insurance, and instead used the insurance provided by our credit card. This does mean that in the event of damage to the car, my card would be charged the full amount, and we'd then have to file with the card's insurance carrier for reimbursement. We were happy with all aspects of the car rental.
The car was a Volkswagen Touran diesel ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volkswagen_Touran ), a standard shift hatchback. A surcharge noted on the Kemwel voucher that we didn't face was "Environmental fee of approximately €5 per day (maximum charge of six days) for all automatic vehicles." We drove 1549 Km (960 mi) in total, and used 99.16 liters (26.2 US gallons) of diesel fuel, which cost €116.02 ($169.39). Thus our mileage was 15.62 Km/liter (36.66 MPG), and our fuel cost was €1.17 per liter ($6.50 per US gallon at the terrible exchange rate).
We enjoy having a cell phone for each of us while in Europe, although some might find that extravagant. In the past, we've bought pre-paid SIM cards for our unlocked GSM cell phones, and added minutes to the cards as needed. This time, we bought SIM cards from Call in Europe ( http://www.callineurope.com/ ), which charged our usage directly to a credit card. This worked out reasonably well - the rates were reasonable, and we didn't have to keep monitoring our balances and recharging the prepaid cards. The cost to call in France is the same as the cost to call from France to the US, so there's no need to use a calling card which requires the entry of additional access numbers.
However, in France, Call in Europe provided our service through the carrier SFR. SFR turned out to have poor coverage in the places we visited. In Montblanc (Herault), we could make calls from our balcony, but had poor reception in other places. In Les Gorges du Tarn, we had no reception in La Malène, where our hotel was located, and no reception in many places in the gorge. We at one point pulled the car over to the side of the road where we had coverage, in order to make a phone call. In Arles, the coverage depended on where we were - we lost it during a critical call while trying to figure out how to get to our hotel. In some place, we were told that the carrier Orange had better coverage. But in past trips, we've been in places where SFR is better than Orange.
We also used Skype to place calls to telephones in the US. But in two of the places we stayed, the WiFi connection to our computer only worked in public areas, and in those places, we often preferred to use our telephones. Our WiFi connections were free everywhere we stayed except at the Hyatt Regency near the airport in Paris, where there was a €0.10 per minute charge.
We brought along a Garmin GPS unit (Global Positioning System), with European maps purchased from Garmin. The maps ($150) are delivered on an SD card that plugs into the unit. The map chip was bought about a year ago, and first used in Italy. The GPS was very useful, but it had some quirks. The English pronunciation of the French street names made that name-reading feature almost useless. I know that TomTom GPS units can pronounce street names properly in French, while still giving the driving directions in English. But with my Garmin Nüvi 650, the language of the directions and the reading of the street names cannot be separately selected - they're either both in English or both in French.
Reading French street name using an English text-to-speech algorithm really mangles them badly, often beyond comprehension. Fortunately, I could read the street names on the display, and proper pronunciation of the street names, while helpful, is not a critical part of the operation of a GPS.
The Garmin unit seemed to have frequent problems with the roads not matching the maps, particularly in Languedoc. It was clear that there has been a lot of construction in the area recently - many of the roads and roundabouts looked new, and were not known to the GPS. In one area, the road had been substantially shifted, and you could see the old road off to the side, now being used for parking. The image on the GPS screen showed that it thought we were plunging along through the dunes. I had to mute it to stop listening to its exhortations to get back on the road.
A general problem with any GPS is that you can become addicted to it, and lose track of the larger picture of where you are. Margie tended to follow along with a map.
We made the greatest use of two Michelin guides, the "Provence" guide, and the "Languedoc, Roussillon, Tarn Gorges" guide. We also used the Thomas Cook book, "Languedoc and South-west France, Driving guide for the independent traveler". Due to weight considerations, we didn't bring along Rick Steves' FRANCE book. But someone loaned us one at some point during the trip, and we liked its advice, so we wished we had brought along our own copy. We used several maps: the Michelin 526 REGIONAL Languedoc-Roussillon 1:300,000, the 340 LOCAL Bouches-du-Rhône, Var 1:175,000, and the IGN departmental Bouches-du-Rhône 1:125,000.
The trip, day by day: Getting there
As I've already warned you, this portion of the report goes day-by-day, and gets a little wordy. Hey, you can always just skim it for portions of interest.
Tuesday 9/8/09: We left our house to catch a Logan express bus to the airport at 2:30PM, EDT
Wednesday 9/9/09: Our American Airlines flight left and arrived on time. We took the TGV ("Très Grand Vitesse" train) to Montpellier, and drove our rental car to Montblanc, arriving around 3:30PM CEST. Hence our total time in transit was around 19 hours.
We've gotten pretty good at negotiating the TGV by now. I commented in an earlier thread about the things you have to watch out for - for example, looking at the monitor that tells you where to stand so that your car stops right in front of you. That posting can be found at http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/on-the-road-in-lyon-ecole-des-trois-ponts-and-provence.cfm#comment-2921222 . Nevertheless, I still made an error. We were seated in Voiture (car) 7, seats 83 and 84. Having determined the proper "répère" (mark), I carefully observed the little LCD display on the side of the car to be sure I got into car 7. But at the top of the half-spiral stairs, I didn't look carefully at the sign above, and turned the wrong way, accidentally crossing into car 6 without realizing that I had done so. There, we put our luggage into a storage rack, and sat down in seats 83 and 84.
This was fine until we stopped somewhere, and a couple got on who had our seats. At that point, we discovered we were in the wrong car. No big deal, we just walked to the proper car. Since our bags were in a rack near the end of car 6 that was adjacent to car 7, we didn't bother to move them.
Once in Montpellier, the car rental area was a short walk from the station, and we picked up our car without a hitch. We used our Garmin Nüvi 650 GPS unit to help us navigate to our first stop, Montblanc (Herault), in Languedoc. The maps of Europe are on an SD memory card that plugs into the GPS unit.
There had been some discussion on the forum of difficulty getting out of Montpellier, but we had no problem at all. Perhaps this was due to the help provided by the GPS. But we were also headed west, and the TGV train station is on the western side of Montpellier, not very far from the highway.
One slight glitch: the GPS didn't accept the street name of our destination (it didn't seem to know that name). We simply entered the name of another nearby street, taken from an area map I had printed from Mappy ( http://www.mappy.fr/ ) before departure.
At the B&B La Maison Rose, we met our hosts Greg and Penny Hannaford, and their children Lawrence ("Loz") and Eloise. They are British, so we spoke with them mostly in English. We also met their friend André, with whom we spoke almost exclusively in French. After a short nap, we had dinner with them that evening. The house has an attractive garden and pool, and all the meals we had there, breakfasts and dinners, were eaten outdoors at a large table.
The house was once a winery, and still contains a large open area with concrete fermentation tanks (entered from the outside, and separate from the living areas). The Hannafords are gradually renovating the house, improving the public spaces, and adding to the living area. Each of the three suites which have already been completed is decorated in a unique style. It could be a great place for a family reunion.
After a past trip report, I was gently chided for not giving an indication of the prices of the places we stayed, and of our meals, so I'll try to rectify that this time. Our two-room suite at La Maison Rose (all their rooms are suites) was €72 a night for the two of us (September is just past the high season), and meals (we ate there three of our five nights) were €20 each, with wine. The large suite gave us plenty of room. Free WiFi access was included, and it worked in our room (it turned out that this was the only place we stayed that had free WiFi that worked in the room).
Different bed and breakfasts have different styles. Some are run like small inns, with meals taken at a private table, and occasionally even including hotel-like amenities such as small bottles of shampoo. But there are others in which you feel as if you've moved in and been adopted as part of the family. La Maison Rose is in the latter category, which suited us just fine. We found that the locals refer to Penny by her full name, Penelope, which. however, they pronounce roughly "pay-nay-lupp".
Thursday 9/10/09: Following Penny's advice, we drove down to La Tamarissière, parked at the beach (taking a brief look at it), and then took the boat "Mimi" across the Hérault river to Le Grau d'Agde. We walked around the small market area there, with a market in progress, and then had lunch on the river's edge at La Pergola. Larry had an appetizer with four oysters and four large shrimp, and then a fish dish (oysters are a specialty of the area, being harvested from the nearby Bassin de Thau). Our lunches were fixed-price menus at €14.90 each, plus two cokes at €3 each. Margie couldn't take advantage of the great local shellfish due to a seafood allergy (to crustaceans like crab and shrimp, and mollusks like clams, oysters, and mussels).
We then drove to Sète along the spit separating the Bassin de Thau from the Mediterranean Sea, passing rows and rows of campers parked along the road for the day. We drove through Sète and along the eastern edge of the Bassin, passing an area of oyster beds, and drove into Bouzigues, where we had a drink on the edge of the harbor.
Finally, we returned home using the GPS, which we had set up in the driveway of La Maison Rose, telling it "use this location as home". When we arrived at our new "home" street, I expected the GPS to announce out loud, "Turn right on Rue Marcellin Albert". Instead, it told us to "Turn right on road". So although it apparently has the Hannaford's street on its internal map, the GPS unit didn't seem to know the street's name. We also found out that it didn't know that the street is one-way - it always told us to make an illegal left out of the driveway. When using a GPS, one has to learn when to ignore it.
We had dinner at "La Pomme D'Amour", where Larry had Moules in a cream sauce (quite good), and maigret de canard (so-so) (€49 for both of us, without wine, but including Margie's €3 kir). When we returned, Greg and Penny offered us a drink outside at the table.
We tended to over-eat a bit on this trip, partly due to the pricing habits of the restaurants. They generally offered a fixed-price menu (often several of them, at different price levels). These were at a substantial reduction from the total price of the same items ordered à la carte. The result was often that if you wanted to skip the entrée (remember that in France, the "entrée" is the appetizer) and the cheese and the dessert, and just order a main dish à la carte, you'd often find it more expensive than one of the fixed-price menus. This tended to drive you to a fixed-price menu selection, which often had more than you really wanted to eat.
I sometimes call this the "Costco effect". We're members of the Costco warehouse in the US, and are sometimes reluctant to buy a particular food item at Costco because it contains twice as much food as we'll be able to finish before it spoils. The problem is, it costs substantially less than the half-as-big item in our local supermarket. Thus, the most economical thing to do is to buy the item at Costco, and throw away half of it (we can't always find someone to share it with).
Friday 9/11/09: We drove on the highway to Carcassonne, and toured the castle (€8 each), the church, and some of the streets of the Cité. Lunch in Carcassonne was at Le Comte Roger, in a nice garden under a vine, where Larry had a cassoulet with preserved duck thigh (quite good). The staff there was very pleasant and helpful. Each of our main dishes was €17.60, but two aperitifs, mineral water, and taxes brought the total up to €49.60.
We returned via (but circling) Bézier, on smaller, and very delightful roads roughly following the Canal du Midi. We stopped at Capestang, and chatted with some British people on a 20-meter longboat named the "Boston". It had been built in England, then taken across the North Sea to Holland, and ultimately down through France. We had a drink alongside the canal.
Back "home", we had dinner there, meeting some of Greg and Penny's friends, who dropped off their son for a while to go out for a birthday dinner. André was also there, so the conversation was in a mixture of French and English. André arrived with a large collection of charcuterie: an olive loaf, paté de chevreuil, jambon, and saucisson. I was pretty full by the time Penny served the meal, starting with a sort of quiche, and going on to a fish dish in a tomato sauce. Adding lots of wine at every step, we declined the dessert, so Penny saved the crèpe batter to use for breakfast.
Saturday 9/12/09: I didn't sleep well overnight, possibly due to having over-eaten and over-drunk. We got out rather late for the market in Pézenas, because Penny slept in a bit, and then we helped jump-start Greg's car (as I said, we were now members of the family). Breakfast, of course, was crèpes made with the batter that we had not used the night before. I had mine with an apple filling, but others had lemon and sugar.
We went off to the market at Pézenas (do pronounce the "s") late, so we were unable to park in the free parking, and had to park in the pay lot (even there we had to wait a bit to get in). When we left in the end, after many hours in the market and at lunch, the charge proved to be only €2, no big deal. It was a nice, long, narrow market, nowhere near the size and quality of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, but fun nevertheless. We purchased a round oilcloth ("cirée") tablecloth for our outdoor table, some shampoo for Margie to try, and a couple of nice cork-covered handbags for our daughters back home.
Lunch was at a simple place, "L'Arc-en-ciel", but was quite good. Larry had an ocean platter with smoked salmon and other things, and Margie had a platter of chèvre chaud. We made reservations for dinner at Le Palmier at 20:00 hours, and then walked over to the tourist information office to pick up a good map and a few brochures.
We were tired, and had a couple of hours to kill. Not wanting to do anything very strenuous, we drove back down to La Tamarissière, parked at the beach, and again took the boat Mimi over to Le Grau d'Agde. There we basically sat down and had a drink - we could have done that on the other side, and saved €4. We chatted the whole time with a couple from Millau, there with their 13-year-old daughter. The conversation was a bit odd, in that we spoke a great deal in French, and he spoke mostly in English. His wife and daughter said nothing.
We had a very pleasant dinner at Le Palmier (the bill says "Le Palmier", but the Visa slip says "Les Palmiers"). Larry had Rillettes de Thon and le plat du jour (veal with tarragon), and Margie had gazpacho and lamb (which came with a lamb-filled eggroll). €52 without wine plus €3 aperitif plus €6 mineral water.
The GPS had been badly pronouncing the street names, so I tried switching it entirely to French (with a TomTom unit, you can have the directions in English and the street names in French, but the Garmin unit can only do everything in one language). As a result, the street names were better, but of course it became harder to understand the directions. We only kept the GPS in this mode for a little while, then decided that reacting rapidly to the directions was more important than having the street names pronounced properly.
Sunday, 9/13/09: We took a long drive to Collioure, almost on the Spanish border, made longer by the fact that the GPS, to get to the A9, turned us off the D18 onto the D125 to Bessan, and then tried to take us over a few gravel roads, all of which disappeared into private property. We had to revert to a regular map to get to the highway. Oddly, it didn't try any of this nonsense on the way back home, even though it was essentially the same route in reverse.
In Collioure, we drove past some distant parking lots, but then the one in the center of town showed "Complet", and there was a line of cars waiting to get in. We drove out the other side of town hoping for more lots. The street climbed steeply, and we saw Le Neptune restaurant on our left, which Margie immediately recognized as being the number one choice on her restaurant list for Collioure (not to mention the site of a Stu Dudley birthday dinner). It was 12:15, and a sign on their lot said "Parking pour clients seulement". We drove in, and parked in their almost empty lot, taking advantage of the empty space to turn the car around for easy departure
Our timing was perfect. We were seated for lunch on their shaded terrace overlooking the harbor and the town below. Shortly after we sat down, quite a few other people came in, and the terrace eventually filled up. We had a great lunch. They started us with a nice hors d'oeuvre of a kind of foamy chevre mousse, eaten with a spoon. Margie had a salad as an appetizer, while Larry had a great anchovy dish (the dishes were so well presented that we took photographs of Larry's). We both followed up with a fish dish, Bacalao, and a modified crème Catalan for dessert. The total was €76 without wine (two menus at 38), plus a pitcher of sangria at 10, and a bottle of San Pellegrino at 6. These prices in euros were starting to feel comfortable, but of course, it's deceptive. The total of €92 seemed reasonable for a really good lunch, but the actual dollar cost on my Capital One credit card (no fee for currency conversion) is $134.42. With the horrible state of the dollar (on this trip, about $1.46 to the euro), France is pretty expensive these days.
Margie started a conversation with a couple from Carcassonne who were at an adjacent table. We found it very easy to start talking with people during this trip, compared with other regions of France we've visited.
Another great benefit of Le Neptune: they allowed us to leave our car in the lot after lunch, eliminating our parking problem (so I guess we can subtract the cost of parking from the cost of the lunch). We walked around the town, visiting a few galleries (although at that hour, just after lunch, some of them were closed). Collioure (http://www.collioure.com/gb/index-gb.htm ) is a great artist's town - sort of like a French Rockport (for those of you familiar with Rockport, Massachusetts).
When we did leave the Neptune parking lot, it was pretty full, and I had to fold the car's side mirrors to squeeze out between a parked car and a large outcropping of rock. I had previously figured out how to fold the mirrors by looking it up in the car's manual, located in the glove compartment. Have you ever had a manual provided in a US car rental? I have ALWAYS found one in European rentals.
We returned via the coastal road for a bit, although it was slow going through a lot of touristy just-behind-the-beach areas. When the road finally ran right alongside the beach, we parked, and walked down to the water. We parked briefly to walk onto the long beach. Margie couldn't resist taking her shoes off and wading a bit in the surf. A swimmer chatted with us excitedly about a rather large fish that he had just seen alongside him in the water.
Compared with previous visits to French beaches, there seemed to be very little topless sunning in evidence (although it was not entirely lacking). This is in accord with a trend noted by an article I had read on the trip down from Paris, in the TGV magazine that I picked up on the train. It was entitled, "Les Françaises, sont-elles pudiques?" ("French women, are they modest?"). Of course, in true French style, the article about how modest French women have become was illustrated by a photo of a topless sunbather.
When we got back for our last meal at La Maison Rose, Greg cooked a barbecue (André was present as well). But we found out that Greg's father had died (which apparently had been expected for some time), and Greg was due to leave the next morning for Bordeaux, to be with his mother.
Still to come: our next two stops, Les Gorges du Tarn and Arles.
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Trip report: Languedoc, Gorges du Tarn, Arles
Trip report: Languedoc, Les Gorges du Tarn, Arles